The End Of The Castro Era

[ Posted Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 – 16:32 UTC ]

Cuba is about to go through only its second transfer of power since its revolution. For the first time in my lifetime, this will mean a Castro won't be running Cuba. For almost six full decades, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl ran the island in what amounted to a communist cult of personality. For the first time since the 1950s, Cubans are about to have a government without a Castro in charge. It is the end of an era, in other words.

What this will mean for the island's residents and for Cuban-American relations is unsure, at the moment. Cuba's new leader is firmly entrenched in the communist hierarchy, so it's likely any changes won't be radical in nature, at least not to start with. But perhaps -- just perhaps, mind you -- without a Castro in charge, America will finally put the Cold War past behind it and fully normalize relations with Cuba.

Of course, the current signs from Washington aren't exactly good for that scenario to play out at any point in the next few years. Donald Trump has actually tightened travel restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba, overturning Barack Obama's historic easing of America's longstanding Cuban policy. But Trump hasn't completely reversed all the progress Obama made -- instead, it's been more like Obama took two steps forward and Trump took one back. But as the Castro Era showed, you have to take the longer view than just the term of any one American president.

A lot of the enmity between the U.S. and Cuba was very personally directed at Fidel Castro. Replacing him with his brother didn't lessen this attitude much, either. This goes back to the revolution itself and the missile crisis in the 1960s, but it also was kept personal by the political power of Cuban exiles in Florida (an important swing state in presidential elections). However, this generation of exiles -- the ones involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco -- is as old as the Castros themselves, and are likewise dying off. This is what allowed Obama to make the moves he did, which essentially brought a formal end to the Cold War.

America's anti-Cuban policy hadn't made sense for years when Obama revamped it. Why were we punishing a country for having a communist government in such a severe fashion, when China was now one of our biggest trading partners? We fought (and lost) a war against the communists in Vietnam, but we had buried the hatchet and regularized relations with them, after all. So what made Cuba so different?

Part of the reason was their geographic proximity. Cuba is roughly 100 miles from Florida -- a lot closer than China, Vietnam, or any other communist country. The Soviet Union was technically less than three miles from America (the distance between Little Diomede Island and Big Diomede Island in the Bering Strait) -- or, if you'd like, close enough for Sarah Palin to see from her house. But the Soviet Union ceased to exist (as a communist country) almost three decades ago. The closeness of Cuba was also the crucial instigator of the Cuban missile crisis, since having Russian nuclear missiles that close to the mainland of America was a scary thought indeed. But it happened over half a century ago.

These days, Castro-style communism has been so thoroughly discredited as a governing ideology that few in America are worried that it could ever threaten our own governing philosophy. That wasn't true back in the depths of the Cold War, but it has been ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. You don't hear fanatics ranting about "commies" or "reds" or "pinkos" much these days, in other words. So the only real conceivable reason for our strict policy towards Cuba is personal -- we didn't want the Castros to have the last laugh.

Within the next decade or so, it is quite likely that Cuba and America will achieve normal diplomatic relations, where American citizens can travel there and spend money, the same way they currently can in China or Vietnam. There are even signs that Trump's reactionary policy change towards Cuba ("If Obama did it, I'm against it") might even ease in the next few years. Senator Jeff Flake just used some leverage to gain a meeting with Mike Pompeo, who has been nominated to be the next secretary of State. Flake reportedly used his power to force this meeting specifically to talk about Cuba's status. Flake could be the key vote to moving Pompeo's nomination forward, so it will be interesting to see what comes of this meeting.

But even if President Trump continues to take a hard line with Cuba, he won't be in office forever. The next president will probably face increasing pressure to open up trade with Cuba by America's farmers (who really want to sell their produce there), and lessening pressure from the Cuban exiles in Florida (whose children and grandchildren don't see Cuba in quite the same light).

Barring American trade and travel to Cuba was a Cold War move on the world's chessboard. But this particular realpolitik game really ended long ago. The only reason to keep these pawns on the board was to stick a thumb in Fidel Castro's eye. American presidents used soaring language to decry Cuba's totalitarian form of government, while at the same time turning a blind eye to equally repressive regimes we were happy to do business with (see: the Middle East). There isn't a politician alive today who deeply fears being called "soft on communism," when that just wasn't true 50 or 60 years ago. So much has changed that it seems downright irrational to continue to restrict trade and travel to Cuba at this late date. And now the Castro Era is finally over. This was the last real impediment to regularizing relations with Cuba. To continue the metaphor: sooner or later, America is finally going to have to remove the last Cold War chess pieces from the board and put them back in the box with the rest of them.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “The End Of The Castro Era”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    I once read that your opinions and ideals are pretty much fixed from the ages of 8 to 12, so if you want to understand somebody, find out how old they are and read about the key historical topics of those years.

    I'm not saying this is in any way a perfect rule, but it can be illuminating.

  2. [2] 
    John M wrote:

    Cuba is actually geographically critical to the United States and to American security, regardless of who is in power there. That's the contributing factor to why so many American presidents took Castro's rule of Cuba so personally, especially after he turned to the former Soviet Union.

    Cuba dominates the sea lanes between The Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic ocean, and by extension, the shipping lanes out of New Orleans and therefore everything coming into and out of the Mississippi river basin and the American heartland.

    America can live with Cuba not being part of the United States. America can live with Cuba being independent and neutral. But like Russia and Ukraine, America cannot live with Cuba being dominated by a foreign power, especially a hostile one. It doesn't matter if that power is Britain, France, Spain or Russia, as long as it is non-American. That's what's made Cuba so different.

    It's also the real reason we still control Guantanamo. It's the same reason Russia took control of The Crimea. Because it had to. Both are crucial to their respective nation's security.

    I would not be so concerned about American intervention in Venezuela. In the future, it's Cuba's relationship with the United States that's likely to be even more closely intertwined with America than even that between The USA and Mexico. Geographically, it's inevitable.

  3. [3] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    John M.

    One's gotta wonder, what the hell was going on in the minds of America's leaders at the time in question, that we came to own Puerto Rico, but NOT Cuba???!!!

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    For me that would be WWII. No wonder I'm so gawdam _____(fill in the blank), (gotta be something bad, right?)

  5. [5] 
    John M wrote:

    [3] C. R. Stucki

    "One's gotta wonder, what the hell was going on in the minds of America's leaders at the time in question, that we came to own Puerto Rico, but NOT Cuba???!!!"

    Puerto Rico and Guam are the only two remaining holdovers from the Spanish American war of 1898, while Cuba and the Philippines gained independence. The whole point of the war being fought in the first place, was supposedly to gain Cuba's independence from Spain. We could hardly go back on and reverse that stated objective once it was achieved. American ownership of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, turned out to be more like incidental, perhaps even unintended (at least in the case of Puerto Rico), side affects to the primary outcome of the original objective, which was freeing Cuba from non-hemispheric European influence. As it was, we had a formal protectorate over Cuba for many years, and practically owned Cuba anyway, right up until the revolution and the 1960's. There was never any great push in Puerto Rico before the war for instance, for any kind of separation from Spain, unlike the feeling in Cuba.

    So the two simple answers to your question basically amount to the following:

    1) Cuba, like the Philippines, had a very extensive and robust local independence guerrilla movements, while Puerto Rico and Guam did not.

    2) The Northern states in particular, especially during the 1850's, were very opposed to the annexation of Cuba, something which they rightly felt would have resulted in the addition of yet another southern slave owning state, upsetting the delicate balance in the U.S. Senate. That sentiment of seeing Cuba as something "other"held over into the early part of the 20th century. Unlike French New Orleans, and Quebec, whom Americans were grudgingly willing to accept if they had been agreeable, because they were thought of as being more easy to absorb. Just like Texas was with it's American settlers. Also just like the push to annex ALL of Mexico following that war pretty much ended after the USA ended up annexing 40 percent of Mexican territory instead of the whole thing.

  6. [6] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    John M

    Thanx for the tutorial, very interesting. Unfortunately, it did not turn out well. Cuba would now be an asset, if only to keep the Russians out, but PR is mostly a liability.

  7. [7] 
    neilm wrote:

    For me that would be WWII. No wonder I'm so gawdam _____

    Smart ;)

    As I get older I struggle more and more with change - my kids are around enough to keep me on my toes and up to date with the latest trends, technology, etc.

    I can totally see me drifting into geezerhood in 5-10 years time. I can see me wandering down the street muttering "The Kaiser is trying to steal my string".

  8. [8] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    neilm [7]

    "The Kaiser is trying to steal my string".

    Dude, crackin' me up!

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    neilm [1] -

    8 to 12, eh?

    That'd put me smack in the middle of the 1970s. Dunno if my political philosophy was set by Nixon, Ford, and Carter, but my musical philosophy was certainly set in stone by Led Zep, Jethro Tull, Yes, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, ELP, and maybe Kansas and a few others. Make of that what you will, I suppose...


    John M [2] -

    That is an excellent point. Hadn't considered the sea lanes, but you're right, one look at a map makes it obvious....

    C.R. Stucki [3] -

    Don't know enough about the Spanish-American War to even attempt to answer that one, but you also raise a good point. We did wind up with the Phillippines, though, which at the time (the race to control the Pacific) was deemed much more important. That might have had something to do with it.

    [4] -

    So, having lived through the depths of the Cold War, what do you think about the future of Cuba and Cuban-American relations?

    Personally, I just want to go down there and drink some rum and ride in some way-cool 50s cars...

    John M [5] -

    aha! Someone who does know some history. Wasn't it Bautista (or maybe Somoza, dunno) who it was said about: "He may be a bastard, be he's OUR bastard"?

    As for your (2)... but wasn't Texas a slave state? Other than that, you raise good points.

    As for the rest of you jokers, Kaiser (out here in CA) is where you go for non-profit health care. Something about an aluminum forture...



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